One of the best ways to hone your skills and have fun at the same time is GeoGuessr. This online game drops you in street view and allows you to move and look around with the purpose of dropping a pin on the world map where you think you are.
The goal is to get as close to the true location as possible, and you are scored based on proximity. If you guess within 150m (or thereabouts), you get 5000 points which is the top score for the round.
While the game offers a lot more freedom than you would have if you were identifying a still image, the skills needed are the same.
Identify the Hemisphere
The absolute first thing you should look for when in GeoGuessr is what hemisphere you are in. This is easy enough on a sunny day as we know certain facts about the sun. If the sun is South of the camera, we are in the Northern hemisphere. Likewise, if the camera faces North, and we see the sun, we are in the Southern hemisphere.
Immediately once you have the hemisphere, you may be able to narrow things down. For example, if you have a temperate location in the Southern hemisphere that resembles the climate and plants of Great Britain, you may want to consider New Zealand as an option (since there are fewer places like this in the Southern hemisphere).
Now that we have ruled out half the planet, we can look at the climate. Different climates further narrow the area down. Continuing to use the location above, we can see it is probably a hot and dry climate (or season). Not just because of the weather on the imagery date, but based on clues from the soil and vegetation. The plants don’t look very green or lush and while we can see it is farmed, the unmanaged vegetation seems a bit scrappy.
(At this point I must confess I am no geography expert — just a geolocation geek — so do excuse my terminology if it is not very precise)
At this point, it may be fair to start guessing on climate alone. For example, if we had this climate in the southern hemisphere, we could be looking at agricultural lands of Africa or parts of Australia. That said, this region could also be hotter areas of Europe like Spain or the East Mediterranean.
Dial in on plants
Deciduous or coniferous? This is the easiest way to determine latitude in the Northern hemisphere. I’m lucky to live in the UK where the transition is very pronounced. In Scotland’s North, we see lots of evergreen conifers, whereas in the South of England, we see lots of deciduous trees.
Let’s say you are dumped in a forest, you may be able to tell the difference between North USA/Canada vs South USA based on trees alone. Likewise in Europe, you are likely to tell Scotland and Scandinavia apart from South England/France based on the ratio of conifers to deciduous trees.
Looking at our example above, we can see that there are a number of deciduous trees and possibly one coniferous tree.
Driving on the right side or the right-hand-side
A very easy way to rule out countries is to check the traffic. Are they driving on the left?
The UK and Ireland become a sure guess if you have North European landscapes and see cars on the left. Likewise, a Southern hemisphere arid landscape with cars on the right may rule out Southern Africa and Australasia, narrowing it down to South America.
If we move down the road, we can see the biggest clue: the language. In our example, we can see that there is a road sign in Spanish.
This is where we can narrow things down to the country and sometimes even region.
Once you have the language nailed, it is fairly easy to drop a guess, as an example, here’s a “wild” guess based on what I had:
Other things to pay attention to
Looking at contrails above the ground can be a great indicator. Are we in a remote region? Not if we look at the busy air traffic. Immediately, this looks like English airspace — or a similar country’s, coupled with the vegetation and overall vibe. The other thing to note is the contrails are quite high up meaning that the camera may be under high traffic, but not immediately near the airport.
Moving about though we can see that it is not England, based on the buildings (they would be unconventional) and the language.
Going from the airspace, the language (which I guessed sounded Dutch) and the fact that it is rural — possibly a medium distance from major airports — I picked the location below.
This one is self-explanatory, if there is a coastline, you don’t want to be guessing inland. Be aware though that some large lakes extend to the horizon and beyond.
Another thing to pay attention to is the stillness of the water and evidence of tides. As an anecdote, I was shocked to learn that Croatia has no significant tide when I visited because the water is constrained by the Mediterranean sea and the Strait of Gibraltar. Lack of tidal evidence may signify a lake or “landlocked” sea.
Likewise, the surf can show how extensive the water stretches. Gentle seas could suggest that the area is sheltered or the water body isn’t large enough to generate big waves. In this example, it isn’t the case though so only treat it as a clue.
A bit of understanding about the former colonisation of Africa and other continents can go a long way.
Countries that speak French, for example, are in the Bulge of Africa.
There are still countries to pick between but you can narrow it down a lot.
None of these are guaranteed to get you down to the pinpoint location, but they are key considerations that can be applied in any geolocation challenges. I personally use these considerations when playing two-minute rounds and want to get as close as possible without having the time to guess the precise location.
Obviously, if you are conducting more serious geolocation research then you would focus in and spend much more time on smaller details.